Baking Basic 101 Series: Know Your Flour

In today’s lesson, we are going to learn about the most used ingredient in baking … FLOUR. How well do you know flour?

Flour is the most basic ingredient in baking, you will probably use flour 95% of the time unless you are baking a flourless recipe. All Purpose Flour is the most common flour, but there are plenty others that you will encounter when you explore more on baking. It is important to know the difference and which one to use, using the right kind of flour makes a difference.

While I had been baking for awhile now, Sometimes, I still feel like a beginner. There is always so much to learn to refresh my memory or just to brush up my skills. I’ve decided to share with you my baking learning journey, and I hope this will benefit you as much as it helped me. I had been meaning to create more baking basics series but I had always been side track with recipe and travel post. I’ll be documenting things that I had learned and will share with you my experiences in baking, baking basics is not just my journey, it is our journey to making ourselves a better baker, especially if you cannot afford to go to a culinary school for whatever reason. I started on my own, learned everything on my own by reading and researching, by watching videos and by listening to advice and feedback. I feel it’s time to give back and share what I’ve learned.

Today’s Lesson: All About Flour

What is Flour?

Yes, it is the often times the main ingredients in baking, but what is it really? Flour is a powder ground from grains (usually wheat). These are those edible seeds from cereal plants. Flour is made up of the following components:

  • Bran: the outside coating (the husk) that acts as protection as it grows. This adds texture, color and fiber to the flour.
  • Germ is where growth begins. Flour that retains germ during the milling process will contain more vitamins, minerals and fiber. Talk about whole wheat flour.
  • Endosperm this is the starchy center of the grain which contains carbohydrates, protein and small amount of natural oil
  • Gluten is a protein found in wheat. It gives strength, elasticity and chewy texture for breads.

Function of Flour in Baking

It is all about structure. The main function of flour in baking is to provide structure to bake products. Gluten affects the structure and texture of the bake products. Gluten develops when the protein in the flour is combined with moisture (any kind of liquid) and heat. Ever wonder why some recipes reminds you to not over mix the batter? Or if making bread, to knead the dough longer and rest in a warm place? The more you work the flour mixture, the more stronger the gluten formation. You do not want this when making delicate bake goods, unless you are making bread. Because flour comes in different types and with different % of protein, knowing what and when to use them is beneficial to the success of the baked goods. An extreme example is using Cake flour to make bread, or vice versa. Understanding the flour is also key to knowing when doing flour substitution.

What is Gluten?

Gluten is a general name for the proteins found in wheat like semolina, spelt, farro, graham, rye and barley. Gluten provides structure, it helps foods maintain their shape.

The Importance of Using the Right Kind of Flour

The type of flour you use in baking affects the end product. Choose the right flour and you’ll end up with a nice chewy bread, choose the wrong flour and you’re risking trouble. Different types of flour have different level of protein, which is the main differentiation among flours. More protein means more gluten, and more gluten means stronger flour, and more strength translate to more volume, steady structure and chewier texture. Dough made from strong flour (like bread flour) stretch better and hold its shape better. Think about homemade bread, homemade bread benefits from use of strong flour, but not cakes and pastry where what we aim for are tender and soft crumbs. 

Types of Flour & When To Use It

All-Purpose Flour

This is the most common and most used flour in baking, and probably what most of us have on hand. All Purpose Flour have protein content about 10 – 12%. This is the most versatile of all the flour, and can be used for pie crust, biscuits, cakes, breads and almost anything you can think of. This is probably why it is called as “All Purpose”. When the recipe calls for just “flour”, it means all purpose flour. All Purpose Flour could either be bleached which means it has been refined stripping the grain of many of its valuable vitamins and minerals. Unbleached flour can include any type of flour, which may or may not be refined.

  • Usage: Pie, cake, cookie, bar recipes, bread, tart (almost anything)

Cake Flour

  This flour have the lowest protein content, about 5-8%, which makes it a weak flour, and it does not have much gluten to hold the structure. The lack of gluten formation makes this flour ideal for baked products that aims for tender crumbs like cakes, biscuits and muffins as well. Cake flour undergo a bleaching treatment process to further weaken the gluten and to alter the flour starch to increase the capacity to absorb more liquid and sugar, thus producing a moist bake goods. 

  • Usage: Cakes, muffins, pie crust, biscuits , scones, delicate pastries 

Pastry Flour

Pastry flour have a protein level about 8-9%, somewhere between all-purpose flour and cake flour which gives a nice balance between flakiness and tenderness. 

  • Usage: Best for pie, tarts, puff pastry and sometimes cookies too
  • To Make Pastry Flour: Combine 1 1/3 cup All Purpose Flour + 2/3 cup Cake Flour

Self-Rising Flour:

This flour have baking powder and salt added to it during the milling process. This flour is made from low-protein wheat.  Because of the addition of baking powder, this flour should be carefully check for the expiry date. Caution: For best quality, it should be used within 6 months, longer than that and the baking powder will start loosing its power 

  • Usage: Best for biscuits, muffins, pancakes and cakes, scones, no yeast bread  
  • How to Make Self-Rising Flour– Combine 1 cup Pastry Flour + 1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder + 1/4 teaspoon Salt

Bread Flour:

This flour is the strongest among all the flour with protein level about 12-14% thus providing the most structural support. This make it the ideal flour for making bread where a stronger gluten is needed to hold the gases produced during fermentation or the rising period time. The extra protein also helps produce a nice browning of the crust. Bread flour comes in white or whole wheat, bleached or unbleached. 

  • Usage: Best for yeast bread ans sturdy baked goods where chewy texture is desirable (like baguette, pizza etc)
  • Substitute: All-Purpose Flour can be use in place of bread flour with slight difference in texture. Since All-Purpose has lower protein content, be careful when using it to substitute bread flour. The bread will have a lighter loose crumb.

Whole Wheat Flour

During the milling process, the wheat kernel is separated into 3 components. The Endosperm, the germ (the embryo) and the bran (the outer coating). In making whole wheat flour, certain amount of germ and bran is adds back to the flour. This is what gave the whole wheat flour a brown color and coarse texture. Whole Wheat has a high protein level, but the addition of germ and bran weakens the gluten forming ability. This is why whole wheat bread tends to be denser and heavier

  • Usage: Whole grain bread, muffins, cookie
  • Substitution: Substitute the recipe with half of the required whole wheat flour with all-purpose flour
  • Caution: Whole wheat flour tends to get rancid easily because wheat germ is high in oil.
  • Storage: this can be stored in room temperature for 3 months, after that it is best to transfer it in freezer. 

Gluten Free Flour

Although not as popular as the other types of flour, gluten free flour is now more accessible in grocery. Gluten free flour could be a single type of flour (like brown flour or coconut flour) or a combination of more than 1 gluten free flour like rice, tapioca and potato starch. To assess the issue of chewiness that gluten provides, a small amount of xantham gum is sometimes added. 

  • Usage: cakes, muffin, pastry 
  • Caution: Baking with gluten free flour is slightly different, make sure to research the type of gluten free flour you are using before proceeding. Gluten free flour tends to take time to absorb the liquid and that should be factored in when using this type of flour.

Flour To Keep On-Hand

I baked a lot and I always try to keep what I consider my basic flour for baking. This is based on what I love to bake on a day to day basis., You can have a different one, depending on what you like to bake.

  • All-Purpose Flour – This is always a MUST for me to have, well because it is “all-purpose”. You can make cake flour, pastry flour if you have this type of flour
  • Bread Flour – Bread is my MOST favorite bake goods to make, more than anything else. Although All-purpose flour works for bread as well, the chewy bread texture is best achieved when using bread flour.
  • Cake Flour – I like to bake cakes from time to time,and my favorite cake to make are Sponge and Chiffon cakes. The cake flour is my go to flour when making Chiffon Cakes, and sometimes for cupcakes too.

Now that you know the different types of flour, you are now equipped with the knowledge on which one to use depending on what you are baking.

Bottom Line

There are 7 Types of flour namely: All-Purpose Flour, Cake Flour, Pastry Flour, Self Rising Flour, Bread Flour, Whole Wheat Flour and Gluten Free Flour. The main differences among each other is the level of protein. When in doubt which flour to use, go for the most versatile of all, All-Purpose Flour.

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